During the Cold War and beyond, Western diplomats had to constantly keep their wits about them when serving in the USSR and the Eastern bloc as they were prime targets for the KGB and respective Secret Police forces, who relied on a range of methods to get access to classified information. One of the most effective was the tried-and-true “honey traps,” in which beautiful, exotic women were used to work undercover to seduce and entice to get information. These honeypots, as they were also called, were the source of frequent irritation or sometimes amusement by male diplomats but occasionally, they could result in a real breach in security, as when an admin officer at Embassy Warsaw named Irwin Scarbeck passed confidential information to Polish security to protect his Polish mistress. Read more
In the early years of the Cold War, Berlin repeatedly became the focal point of tension between the U.S. and the USSR in the struggle for supremacy in Europe. Between 1945 and 1950, over 15 million people emigrated from Soviet-occupied eastern European countries to the West, which led Moscow and East Germany to tighten emigration controls. Berlin, administered by the four occupying powers, remained an escape hatch through which East Germans and others could flee. In 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum giving the Western powers six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin and make it a demilitarized city, which would then be turned over to East Germany. The West was vehemently opposed. Read more
Diplomats are often faced with difficult circumstances. Their negotiations may affect the outcome of international disputes or solidify relations among nations. Sometimes diplomatic skills are also necessary for certain circumstances — such as determining whether an American dog can stay in a Soviet hotel. Read more
When Armenia gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it was in dire straits. It was in the midst of a bitter war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, its borders with Turkey were closed, which prevented the transshipment of goods. Civil unrest reigned in neighboring Georgia, where bandits would frequently steal from large trucks, greatly reducing the amount of food and oil which finally made it to Armenia.
The populace faced a grim winter with very little heat and not much hope. Into this dark morass came Harry Gilmore, the first Ambassador from the United States to Armenia. Working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the On-Site Inspection Agency, and others, he spearheaded an effort to bring in heating oil and food in the winter of 1994. Read more
While the work at embassies can often put Foreign Service officers in harm’s way, on occasion they have the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous. That could range from helping the niece of a famous actor get a passport, arranging a meeting between a diplomatic rock star and George Harrison or, in a more serious case, grant a visa to a famous punk rocker despite serious opposition, only for that person to be arrested for murder while in the States. Read more
The Soviet Union, in Churchill’s famous words, was a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”; as such it made it extremely difficult for outsiders – including foreign intelligence services — to separate fact from fiction. The United States had a range of sources to gather intel: spies, bugs, publicly available information like brochures and books, and of course, defectors. One of the most important defectors was Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet colonel who provided information to the United States on the plans and descriptions of the nuclear rocket launch sites in Cuba. A few believe that Penkovsky was actually part of a Soviet plan to somehow mislead the U.S. into thinking that Soviet missile capabilities were not as advanced as previously believed. Penkovsky, true defector or not, was tried, found guilty, and executed.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a time of great tension for U.S diplomats in Embassy Moscow. Some Americans during the Penkovsky case were declared person non grata, and “rent-a-mobs” surrounded the Embassy protesting U.S. actions on Cuba. Oddly enough, the Russian people themselves seemed to go out of their way to express appreciation for Americans, as demonstrated in their ovations for the Robert Shaw Chorale, which was touring the USSR at the time. Read more
Russia’s tumultuous history is replete with backstabbing — sometimes literal — where the powerful would seek their vengeance with a host of toxins. Poisoning could be used as a way of getting rid of rivals, as punishment, or simply to “let you know whose country you are in.” It was not limited to just political opponents but, on occasion, could even be used to sicken American diplomats. Read more
It is impossible to understand the War in Afghanistan, now the longest war in American history, much less the motives for the United States to lead this international engagement, without first understanding Afghanistan itself and considering the historical context preceding and surrounding the war. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States’ foreign policy focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency: namely, disbanding al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.
For centuries, it was the national symbol of a nation. For decades, it was kept in Fort Knox for safekeeping. The Crown of Saint Stephen dates back to the year 1000, when Stephen, a devout Christian and the patron saint of Hungary, became King and Pope Sylvester II gave him the crown as a gift. From the twelfth century onward, the Crown of Saint Stephen was used in the coronations of some fifty kings. At the end of World War II, the Hungarian crown jewels, along with the Crown, were eventually given to the United States Army by the Hungarian Crown Guard to keep them out of the hands of the Soviet Union. The Crown was kept at held Fort Knox, Kentucky alongside the bulk of America’s gold reserves and other priceless historical items.
President Jimmy Carter made the controversial decision to give the crown back to Hungary based on evidence that it had improved its human rights record and allowed for travel of its citizens. On Epiphany, January 6, 1978, a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and including Senator Adlai Stevenson, Congressman Lee Hamilton, and Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, returned the crown to Hungary. Read more
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was, among other things, a horrible political miscalculation, lasting nine bloody years and resulting in the death of some one million civilians as well as forcing millions of others to flee the country. It led to another cold spell in U.S.-Soviet relations as the Carter administration responded by boycotting the USSR’s pride and joy, the 1980 Summer Olympics, and lobbied other countries to do likewise. Read more